Yvette Tekel, 1925-2015
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Yvette Tekel, 1925-2015

Community mourns loss of beloved leader ‘active in anything Jewish’

Yvette Tekel
Yvette Tekel

The loss of Yvette Tekel will be keenly felt throughout our community and beyond its borders.

Indeed, the words family, friends, and colleagues — across communities, across organizations — used to describe Ms. Tekel — who recently moved to Fort Lee from Haworth — paint a picture of a woman who brought joy and inspiration to all who knew her.

“She was a five-foot giant,” said her husband, Louis, singing the praises of his nearly 90-year-old wife to Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner, who conducted Yvette’s funeral on May 20 at Temple Emanu-El of Closter. The couple had been married for 68 years.

Lou, who worked in the linen business and was a decorated hero of World War II, “was chairman of the Yvette fan club,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “He supported her and stood by her side” in all her many charitable endeavors.

That support went both ways. While it was Lou who served on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Home Foundation, “Yvette was always by his side, even coming to board meetings,” said Melanie Cohen, the Jewish Home Family’s executive director. “They were both extremely interested. You always saw them together.”

A member of the Hadassah National Board’s Honorary Council as well as past president of the organization’s Northern New Jersey region, Yvette Tekel was the first president of the Women’s Division of UJA/Federation of Northern New Jersey. She was also president of the Rockland County Jewish Home for the Aged in Suffern, N.Y., which includes both the Esther Gitlow Towers, named for Yvette’s mother, and the Yvette & Louis Tekel Senior Residence. Cohen pointed out that Yvette and Lou were an integral part of building and expanding the facility.

“She was an amazing woman,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “She was active in anything Jewish.” Not only was she “the queen of Hadassah — right out of central casting,” but her activities spanned “the alphabet soup of Judaism. Her physical challenges never stopped her. She was always optimistic, cheerful, and smiling.” What’s more, he said, when help was needed, “she never said no.”

“Yvette breathed Yiddishkeit,” said the rabbi. “She was indomitable. A special soul.”

Yvette Gitlow, originally from Rockland County, met her husband in Spring Valley. Her strong philanthropic drive was due in no small part to the influence of her own mother, Esther Gitlow, Rabbi Kirshner said. Indeed, Ms. Cohen added, the funding for Rockland’s Jewish Home came from the Gitlows, who were very active in the Spring Valley Jewish community.

Gale S. Bindelglass of Franklin Lakes recalled a car ride with Yvette. “We talked about mothers and how to make gefilte fish,” said Ms. Bindelglass, who co-chaired JFNNJ’s Women’s Philanthropy Spring Luncheon in 2011, when Yvette received the group’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award.

“She said that on her way to shul, her mother would drop off Shabbat packages for the needy,” Ms. Bindelglass continued. “Her mother was very charitable. Yvette spoke about mother with such reverence and a sense of embodying what her mother was for her. And she carried it on in a beautiful way.”

“Yvette was an inspiration. She strengthened the fabric of the Jewish community, one person at a time,” said Rabbi Kirshner, noting her strong influence on her daughter-in-law, Jill.

“She had a wonderful relationship with Jill,” Ms. Cohen said. “You would have thought she was her daughter.” Not only that, but the mother-in-law’s philanthropic impulses “rubbed off on her.”

Ms. Cohen said that the Tekels were active with the Jewish Home here “even before it moved to Bergen County, when it was still in Hudson.

“They had a special relationship with Chuck Berkowitz,” then its executive director, “because there was a lot of collegial back and forth” when Mr. Berkowitz helped them with their efforts in Rockland.

“When we opened the facility here in 2001, the Rockland County Jewish Home, as it has become known, became a supporter of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, and we have a very special relationship,” Ms. Cohen said. “Yvette and Lou were donors from the start for this facility and have continued with capital funding. They were loyal annual supporters.”

Ms. Cohen’s relationship with Yvette, however, also was personal.

In the early 1970, “I was in college but my parents lived in New Milford,” she said. “Yvette was involved in Northern Valley Hadassah.” Since there then was a growing Jewish population in the Bergenfield, Dumont, and New Milford area, “Yvette reached out to women to start a Hadassah chapter — Tri-Boro Hadassah. She was the driving force in getting that chapter started. She became good friends with my mother, who became very active in Hadassah, and when I graduated from college, I became a life member of Hadassah.”

Later, when Ms. Cohen married and moved back to the area, she became president of the chapter. “My friendship with Yvette grew,” she said. Years later, when she became involved in the Jewish Home, “I was using the skills Yvette taught me as a volunteer leader and fundraiser. Yvette was my mentor.”

And then — “There were Yvette and Lou at the Jewish Home.”

The couple’s distinguishing feature, Ms. Cohen said, was that “when they became involved in a cause, it was never peripherally. They were all in or they didn’t get involved. Whether Hadassah or the Jewish Home, once they decided to commit, it was a total commitment.”

“She gave her undivided attention” to every cause she was involved with, Ms. Bindelglass said, adding that when UJA Federation of Bergen County & North Hudson merged with the Jewish Federation of North Jersey, the women’s groups of both organizations led the way.

“She showed so much love,” Ms. Bindelglass said. Inviting younger women to join a longtime informal social group known as the “Birthday Bunch,” “she always said, ‘we’re so glad you came in.’ She was so overjoyed that young people would come. Her most obvious power was that she exuded love, she had a smile for everyone.

“Nobody could say no to Yvette,” she said, pointing to Ms. Tekel’s success at fundraising. “You felt joy in saying yes to her.”

When Ruth Cole of Ridgewood, a former president of the of the New Jersey Association of Jewish Federations and longtime Hadassah leader, was becoming president of the Northwest Bergen Chapter of Hadassah in the 1970s, “Yvette was already a leader in the regional [Northern New Jersey] area.”

The two subsequently became friends — but in the beginning, Ms. Cole said, she remembers Yvette as “the master builder of the region for newly employed women. She said if we wanted to move up to the regional board level, she would make meetings in the evening. She saw there was a need.”

In “A Tapestry of Hadassah Memories,” Yvette, founder of Hadassah’s Northern Valley chapter, wrote that her mother had founded a chapter in 1948, after the creation of the State of Israel. So, Ms. Cole said, it was particularly meaningful for Yvette to have her mother install her as president of the New Jersey chapter. And with Yvette’s own daughter there, three generations of life members stood together at the installation.

“She was so proud,” Ms. Cole said, adding that she would also be proud to know that her daughter-in-law Jill, now a leader in the regional organization, will speak in her stead at the upcoming 40th anniversary celebration of the Tri-Boro chapter.

Ms. Cole, who spoke at Ms. Tekel’s funeral, credited her friend with developing many “first-time activities and events” for Hadassah. “She was beginning to show her pioneering spirit, coming up with innovative methods of reaching out to new people,” said her longtime colleague and friend.

“She was like a coach, mentor, guide, and pied piper. She attracted people to follow her and to feel like they could do it. She wouldn’t let them fail. She had tremendous empathy and understanding of character. She treated each person in an individual manner.”

According to Ms. Cole, Yvette also was “fantastic” at fundraising; she raised millions of dollars for Hadassah. Even more, “wherever she worked, she made friends — and kept them.” Indeed, she said, the line at the funeral for greeting the mourners was so long, “you didn’t know where the end was.”

“She was a community builder, a leader who went beyond leading,” Ms. Cole said. “People wanted to emulate the goal she was setting. She was a motivator. She helped people understand how they could make a contribution to Israel and the Jewish people.”

Describing her friend as a woman with “determination, courage, and perseverance,” Ms. Cole said Ms. Tekel had the special gift of being able to both “give love and receive it. She wasn’t just a caregiver. She was graceful when people offered help. She could look through the eyes of another person.”

In her “Tapestry” article, “Yvette ended by writing, ‘And I loved every minute of it,’” Ms. Cole recalled. “And we loved every minute of being part of her circle of multitudes of friends who tried to walk in her shoes.”

“An enormous void will be left behind,” she added. “That void must be filled by all who admired her and felt that she was setting the pace. It is a legacy we must continue.”

Yvette Tekel is survived by her husband, Louis; children, Harvey Tekel and Tova Szporn; daughter-in-law Jill Tekel, grandchildren Erica, Adam, Rachael, and Joshua; and great-grandchildren Zachary, Zoe, and Hannah. Contributions in Yvette’s memory may be made to Yvette Tekel Memorial Fund, c/o Hadassah, 40 Wall St., P.O. Box 1100, New York, NY 10268-1100.

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